When you've conquered the galaxy twice, where do you go next? The universe would seem to be the logical step forward, but then Nintendo's mascot - particularly in recent years - has rarely taken the most straightforward route. So rather than expanding outwards, Nintendo has scaled back, bringing its hero into sharper focus. It's a journey into the universe, all right, but instead of drifting through nebulae, arms outstretched, Mario has his feet on familiar ground. It's his universe; the Super Mario Universe.
Plenty has been jettisoned on his journey back from space. Gone is the storytelling bloat of Sunshine and Galaxy. There is no hub world to explore. Downtime is almost non-existent. This is a game precision-tuned for portable play. Nintendo has suggested 3D Land is the hamburger to Galaxy's gourmet feast, but it's more a tray of delicious canapés with no two bites entirely the same.
The streamlined approach is understandable. His recent 3D adventures have seen Mario bounding ahead, leaving some of his audience behind. For all Galaxy's persistent inventiveness and sheer visual brio, not everyone could get to grips with the spherical planetoids and gravitational shifts. Little wonder many stuck with the familiar comforts of New Super Mario Bros. instead. So 3D Land is Mario extending a white glove behind him, hanging back for others to catch up, as if to say "hey, I'll wait."
Initially, it feels like a step backwards. Mario's moveset is that of his 2D counterpart rather than the nippier version from Galaxy, Sunshine and 64. He's guided with the circle pad, trotting around slowly unless you hold Y to make him run. There is no triple jump, and his backflip has to be charged. This is a Mario seemingly designed for side-scrolling environments, the Mario of his original NES adventures, except now he's in a 3D world. It takes a little getting used to.
And it's not the only nod to Mario's past. The Tanooki suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 returns, while each level finishes with a familiar leap to the flagpole, and a 1UP reward should you grab the very top. A timer ticks down in the top-right, generous enough to allow for a few brief exploratory forays off the beaten track, while a hit from an enemy turns our hero into his squat, squeaking non-Super form.
But if it pays tribute to everything Mario was, Nintendo isn't about to forget what he's become. The levels may not be as expansive as Galaxy's, but they're equally inventive, shifting perspectives from side-on to top-down, with isometric interludes in between. Each holds myriad secrets, from brief mini-games to earn coins or power-ups to starman sprints above the clouds, with applause sounding if you defeat every enemy before Mario's invincibility wears off.
There's a variation on Galaxy's comet medals, except here there are three to collect, often requiring smart use of power-ups or wall-jumps to reach. It's here you're reminded that Galaxy's spin jump offered a second chance to redeem mistimed leaps, allowing you to be a little sloppy. There's no get-out-of-fail-free card here, and 3D Land's more exacting challenges in the later game enforce precision platforming.